Climate change denial: crime, mental disorder or both?

In 2005 I published an editorial that forecast that climate change denial would eventually be ruled a culpable offense by some court. I predicted that certain New Jersey governments denying climate change, specifically those that refused to respond to sea level rise, would eventually be held responsible for property loss that could otherwise have been prevented by reasonable actions taken in other localities. My prediction published in New Jersey was locally unpopular at that time.

Since then, the state (along with the federal government and most local governments) has officially recognized the reality of sea level rise and its impact on citizens and real property. Climate change denial remains as political rhetoric but not an official position or basis of action by our government. At this point more than a decade later it seems that any politician who refuses to follow laws designed to mitigate climate change might be even subject to criminal complaint.

Lately I notice an increasing trend of discussing climate change denial in terms of mental disorder. The topic has received serious attention from the psychological profession since 2009 but never really been a front page news item. Not that climate change deniers are gathering national headlines, the topic has reappeared in public discussion.Recently I was surprised by a young journalist who wished to present climate change denial in a project on essentially even footing as those working to address its effects.

Aside from any comic or political intent, the concept of mental disorder has merit. It appears that there are a small portion of people, for whatever reason, do not process cognitive information in the same scientific way as the rest of the community. They have a unique trait of being able to look at the same information but not process it the same way as the overwhelming majority. That might be valuable in some areas like creative fields – but it is a liability within the scientific and legal worlds.

My personal observation is that the only way a person can uphold a climate change denial opinion is to: a) avoid considering all of the available information, b) close their mind to the entirety of available information, or c) lack the mental capacity for reasoned response. I should clarify that by “opinion” I mean “reasoned response” not “personal opinion”. Of course, everyone is entitled to a personal opinion, and personal opinion is not required to be based on fact, logic, or law. Yet if we are talking about reasoned response, subject to universally understood principles of logic and standards of evidence, then there is no factual, logical or legal defense for climate change denial.

I still wonder when we will see the first definitive court case where a public official’s denial of climate change is alleged to be the most proximate cause of a claimant’s damages.This legal action will likely happen long before public opinion agrees that climate change denial is a mental disorder. An interesting preliminary ruling in one such case issued last month indicates that more legal action will follow. I predict that this will be a lucrative area of practice for a new generation of environmental accountants and lawyers.

Until then, an opinion is just that.

Money Island NJ: ‘Ground Zero’ for regional climate change response

With the April 15 tax deadline past, today I turned my attention to local New Jersey politics in Money Island New Jersey. My friends and acquaintances know that for many years I’ve been working in support of a sustainable future for my time home community. Today I spent time speaking with our political consultant, our Mayor Bob Campbell and a staff member of Senator Jeff Van Drew.

My efforts to work with local government began in 2004.  Since then, I’ve wound up buying a commercial property for an aquaculture facility and expansion of a crab shedding business, negotiating the purchase of the bankrupt marina and I’ve spent countless hours attempting to negotiate the tensions that inherently come with rising tides. In short, we’ve accomplished very little in the past decade. In early 2012 (before Sandy) we began work on a long-term sustainability plan for the Money Island Marina community that involves all of the stakeholders. The Money Island Marina community consists of only about 12 small businesses and about 35 active individual residents but this changes seasonally.

There is nothing different about the experience of Money Island NJ as compared with the experience of hundred or thousands of similarly situated waterfront communities in our region. I’ve visited many small rural communities, marinas and aquaculture facilities in the mid-Atlantic coastal region over the past decade. I’ve met with the operators and keep in contact on social media and through industry associations. I conclude that the primary difference between us and them is simply the amount of documentation published and available for public consumption on the internet. The very fact that Money Island’s progress is being hashed out in public view earns us the heading “Ground Zero for regional climate change response”.

Philadelphia-Daily-News

Background

In the 1970s this rural hamlet on the Delaware Bay was devastated by storms and continued to lose ground and houses to erosion year after year. By the 2000’s most of the original homes and part of the roadways had washed away. Residents activated government to take action. Rebuilding projects were approved on paper but never actually executed. Since then several local communities were bought out by the state to be converted to open space (Thompson’s Beach, Port Mahon, Sea Beeze, Baypoint). It appears that Money Island is next in line but the economics and attitudes are different here than in the other communities. Since the 1990s we have reportedly experienced a sea level rise of between 7.5 and 9 inches (depending on who reports the measurement). This is apparently among the highest levels of water rise due to climate change in the world and 3 to 4 times greater than the global average. Scientists in Nature Magazine call it the “global sea level rise hotspot”.

The widely supported regional economic recovery plan is posted at http://www.mauricerivertwp.org/pdfdocs2014/RecoveryPlanFEMAfinal.pdf. Money Island plays prominently in the region’s recovery plan despite the fact that we are so small. We have become a media focal point and testing grounds for NJ’s sea level rise response. Millions of dollars have been spent in surrounding communities but nothing has happened yet at Money Island.

An independent study on our recovery prospects is posted at http://www.natlands.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2014/01/EPA-final-report-1-14-14-w-o-appendices-B-C-D.pdf . The report is prepared by Natural Lands Trust and funded by the EPA.

Local news items and commentaries are posted on my web site “Money Island News” at  www.moneyislandnews.com.

Status Update

Based on the discussions today, these are my conclusions of the most likely outcome:

LOCAL DIFFERENCES OF OPINION – Tensions among neighbors and government officials will remain high for the foreseeable future and I will attempt to deal with this through open and honest communication. I represent some people who want to sell and move inland, others that want to stay. Some people will be upset by whatever action I may take. I will strive to be even-handed and communicate all information evenly and respect each person’s individual decisions.

POLITICAL DIFFERENCES OF OPINION – We continue to suffer from a lack of consensus and lack of leadership on climate change response issues at the highest levels of government. Downe Township has apparently drawn attention by using public resources to promote a “No Retreat” campaign to oppose the state and federal strategic retreat initiatives. Most scientists and land us planners do not think than “no retreat” is a realistic approach. The mayor of Downe Township has reportedly (previously reported in a local newspaper and told to me directly by the mayor today) asked the township Solicitor to prepare an injunction to oppose the State of New Jersey’s land management strategy of purchasing waterfront properties for open space. I emphasize the expanding opinion within the political and legal community that government that opposes or ignores the overwhelming body of evidence of sea level rise will eventually be held accountable and liable for the impact of those actions. It seems unlikely that government officials at any level will continue to be able to oppose climate change response programs without suffering legal consequences for the damages that are eventually incurred by constituents.

LIKELY OUTCOME FOR MONEY ISLAND HOMES – Some of the residents will sell their properties to the state this yer or in 2016. Others will not sell but will find it increasingly expensive to maintain a residence here. Property values will continue to decline in response to flooding, difficulty of getting building permits and increased levels of taxation. Tax rates as a percentage of realizable property value may be among the highest in the country (over 15% tax to value ratio). Those who can afford to stay will modify lifestyles and use evolving technologies to avoid being consumed by rising tides. The average time frame for actual completion of sale to the state is three years.

LIKELY OUTCOME FOR MONEY ISLAND MARINA – The overall financial viability of the recreational operations of the marina remains uncertain and depends more on long-term factors that we cannot control (like the rebound of fish stocks). In contrast, the commercial operations of the marina are likely to remain viable for the foreseeable future regardless of any other factors. The current fish management plan that favors unharvested juvenile striped bass is preventing the rebound of other species like weakfish (that used to provide the financial backbone of the local economy).

The expansion of eco-tourism programs are moving forward in a positive direction (perhaps drawing 200 new visitors and adding about $1,000 to net revenues in 2015). Yet the combined impact of all of these efforts has been minimal so I do not consider it to be a significant factor in the immediate future of the marina except for political goodwill.

The marina management is unlikely to continue to continue to be a landowner. That was never the business model (even dating back to the 1990s). The land ownership was always separate from the marina management. This is common in the marina industry. It simply is not financially possible for the marina management to cover the cost of waterfront land ownership under the current regulatory and compliance structure. Like many other New Jersey marinas, the land will likely be owned by the state or some other land trust or nonprofit entity (some we are talking to include The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Natural Lands Trust or BaySave) and the marina management will then lease the property from the state. This is the business model used by nearby Fortescue Marina that gives them a significant operating advantage over marinas with privately owned land. The time frame for sale of the marina real estate to a public entity is estimated to be 2 to 3 years by those I’ve spoken with and  do not have any basis to predict the probability of successful completion of the process.

LIKELY OUTCOME FOR AQUACULTURE EXPANSION AND COMMERCIAL FISHERIES – There are several bills proposed by State Senator Jeff Van Drew to expand aquaculture in New Jersey. If passed, these could have a significant impact on Money Island, Absent this legislation, there is no indication that any significant change is likely. The proposed legislation is:

S3193 – Requires Dept. of Agriculture and DEP to work with US Army Corps of Engineers to establish joint permit application process for Aquaculture projects.
S3194 – Requires Dept. of Agriculture and DEP to adopt joint permit application and review program for Aquaculture projects.
SJR95  – Declares Aquaculture an important State economic driver and urges State to include Aquaculture industry in its economic development plans.
SR144 – Urges State to promote, cultivate, and support shellfish Aquaculture in NJ.

The oyster harvesting and crab shedding industries remain the most profitable at Money Island and I see no reason why that will change in the future unless other aquaculture operations are permitted to expand, Without legislative change, there will be no expansion, contraction or policy shift other than dictated by annual stock assessment reports. I have no basis to predict the likely success of proposed legislation or the timeline of implementation if it is passed.

I am available to anyone who wishes to discuss any of these issues. A copy of the “Money Island Marina Sustainability Plan” is available on request.